Timberlake Tea

Nannuo Puer Tea and Justin Timberlake

Justifying Young Puer Teas

Timberlake Puer Wistaria
Dry Nannuo Tea

First, listen to this. We are going to need it as a reference point when elaborating on what Nannuo Puer tea (above) has to do with Justin Timberlake (below).

Pusher girl, a track off of JT’s latest release The 20/20 Experience, is a song that drips. Swells. Pulses. It’s sex. Masterfully produced, well crafted, poppy neo-soul sex. This is the mature pop icon, Justin Timberlake. He is a case study in evolution. Those of you with a memory of American pop culture will recall that before Mr.Timberlake arrived at his current album he went through multiple transformations.

Justin Timberlake Nsync
Justin Timberlake (back left) with his fab boyband hair, which is shockingly only the 3rd worst hairdo in the group

When he was young, you likely loathed him. Back up dancing in baggy jean overalls on  the Mickey Mouse Club. It’s tough to like this kind of family friendly programming, even when you are a kid. If you are like me, you probably didn’t even notice he was there. You opted to watch Voltron instead or despite your dislike, you might have admitted that he had talent and moved on. Even the biggest hater has to admit those are rad 90’s Disney© Dance moves .

Fast forward a few years, he starts fronting for the boy band N’sync. You might not have noticed the Disney Channel show, but unless you lived in a cave, you knew the Back Street Boys and N’sync. His band-mates and hairdo forced you to suppress homicidal rage, but again you had to admit, he had pipes. You weren’t lining up with the 8th grade girls wearing Stussy t-shirts to buy tickets to see their sold out arena shows. Again, you opted out and went to Warped Tour instead.

Jump ahead a few more years. You could really take or leave anything he has done in his career up until this point. He seems like any run of the mill teen heart throb. Then, suddenly, he’s not a kid anymore. He is no longer the Mouseketeer or the teeny bopper boy band lead. He is an adult. He starts putting out albums like Justified and Future Sex Love Sounds. He brings sexy back. Not only do you want to listen to those albums, you are anxiously awaiting his next release. You start seeing him in films and on late night television and he is a talented entertainer. What happened to the Mickey Mouse Club?

After several paragraphs about Justin Timberlake’s career, you might be thinking, “So what does this have to do with Nannuo Shan and puer tea? Twodog, I am a busy man, stop wasting my god damn time. I don’t even like Justin Timberlake. Your analogy sucks and am taking you off of my Google reader.” Keep your top on, I am getting to it.

Nannuo Puerh
Nannuo Puer

Fair reader, I will let you in on two little secrets; First, I never cared for the Mickey Mouse Club. Second, I don’t look forward to drinking young Nannuo teas. However, I still do the latter in spite of not enjoying it.

I drink young Nannuo teas like a talent scout, betting on who is going to have a career. It is a tough game, you might end up with a few JTs or with a few… who was the “bad boy” from 98 degrees? The point is, I don’t drink a lot of  young Nannuo teas in my daily rotation. However, if you open the doors on my personal collection, Nannuo shan is well represented. I am aging them in a few different places, with several different teas, ranging from more well known productions to blank white paper wrapped cakes from small productions. I have more than a few tongs [7 cake stacks] of tea with nothing more to identify them than a quickly scrawled Mr.Qin, Spring, 2007 Nannuo. I still haven’t opened those tongs, but I will when the talent is ready.

2003 Wistaria Ziyin Soup
2003 Wistaria Ziyin Soup

The tricky business with aging puer teas is that it is not an exact science. Teas will go through phases, starring in fast food commercials and waiting tables in between moments in the spotlight. Some will ascend to stardom, others will play regional theater. Poor storage can lead to a once promising tea ending up as a gutter dwelling heroin junkie.

So, where is a Timberlake-esk talent for Nannuo? The 2003 Wistaria Ziyin is in the ballpark. Price tag is around $175  per cake, which is Justified.(Sorry) Not an inexpensive pricetag, but Timberlake doesn’t play weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. Not to mention that finding talent in a sea of aspiring entertainers is a tough game. I could find 100 cakes on taobao [Chinese ebay] that are at or above this price, but have been stored terribly and lack the depth of charms that the Ziyin possesses. It is leathery and oily, thick in the mouth and throat with traces of dark fruit. All of the Mickey Mouse is gone, which can partially be attributed to Taiwan storage.


What is a low budget producer to do?

You don’t have $1,000 to spend on a tong of ten year old Nannuo cakes? You are not alone.  For the talent scout on a budget, you are going to have to find stars, not employ them. If a quality 10 year old tea is out of your price range, then a quality 20 or 30 year old tea not in the cards either. So, find some quality 1-3 year old tea. Use your best judgment, and buy a cake or a tong, and stash it in a well cared for pumidor. ( no heavy smells, no direct sunlight, moderate humidity ) In several years time, hopefully some of those guesses worked out. My personal pick and shameless self plug is this 2012 Ruiyuan Nannuo. Will it be a winner? I don’t know. Nobody does.

But in a good scenario, you get a smooth tea that sings and dances with enviable talent.

Ruiyuan Nannuo White 2 Tea Puer Tea
Dry leaves from a young Ruiyuan Nannuo cake

On the off chance you hate Justin Timberlake, (or are underwhelmed like these hipster hate-it-alls), you are welcome to leave alternative rise to glory analogies in the comments. I couldn’t come up with a brutal metal alternative. Maybe Deathklok.

Yueguangbai Puer Tea Blog

2009 Yueguangbai

Yueguangbai , the White Moonlight

What a romantic name! Yueguangbai [the whiteness of the moonlight] is a lightly processed  version of large leaves from Simao area, which in some peoples minds’ would qualify as puerh tea, but may be considered a white tea due to its light processing, or even a red tea after aging. When it is fresh, YGB drinks a bit like a white tea, but after aging it morphs into hongcha flavors [red tea].

I am fudging the date of this tea, and the wrapper is unlabeled. I know that I bought this tea in Guangzhou in 2010. Assuming that it was pressed the fall before, that puts this cake’s birthday around 2009.

Puerh Tea Blog
Unlabeled plain wrapper
Yueguangbai Tea
A dry bunch of contrasty leaves, the top and bottom of each leaf are black and white

This cake has entered into red tea adulthood as you can tell by the auburn soup below.

The YGB is thick with a flavor that my mother refers to as silage. Silage, for those of you city folk, is freshly cut alfalfa or oats or  other crops. (consult wikipedia for more silage information)  Farming communities are draped in the smell of silage every year, with fermenting plants dotting the fields before they are stored for use as animal feed.

ruyao teapot
New teapot – around 250ml

This YGB releases an immediate sweet silage smell. Fermenting hay, dry and saccharine.

How this will continue to age, I have no idea. This session is the first time I have dug into this cake in a couple of years and the change is quite big from how I remember it. It was much less brown, in both color and flavor, the last time I had it. Unlike most puerh tea, I prefer this in its earlier white stage, but alas I can’t turn back the clock.

Not my favorite tea, but for an inexpensive cake of this nature, it is a fun and welcome change of pace.

Chinese tea blog
The red soup
Tea Obituaries

Potter D. Ragon (2007 – 2013)

Tea Obituaries

Relative of Cel A. Don , Potter D. Ragon was a portly man, known for his robust carriage and gentle nature. He spent most of his life as a farmer. During the recent economic downturn he earned a living picking lemons and other fruits at the local fruit orchard. He was fond of taking fruit home from work in the evenings and brewing hot drinks with his children.

Potter was recently admitted to the hospital with a severe belly leakage. The doctor informed him that the surgery for his repair would not be covered by medical insurance. A man of humble means, Potter decided that he would let nature take its course rather than bankrupt his family with surgery bills. His current employer at the fruit orchard, Mr.Stingely, decided it was best not to get involved, considering Potter’s replacement would only cost around $20.  Mr.Stingely could not be reached for comment.

Potter D. Ragon is survived by two sons.

If you have a tragedy in the teaware family, please contact the editor.

Tea Obituary
A photo from Potter’s ceremony
Ruiyuan Nannuo Shan Gushu

2012 Ruiyuan Nannuo Gushu

Ruiyuan Nannuo and Mr.Ma’s Tea

Veteran puer blogger Hobbes recently reviewed this Ruiyuan Nannuo laoshu [old tree] tea, which was made by a puer presser named Ma Yongwang. As Hobbes mentioned, I think of Mr.Ma as a straight shooter. After sampling some of his tea productions from Hekai and Nannuo, I decided two things:

1) Mr.Ma had a good nose for curating good puer

2) His prices were in line with the tea quality

These two factors gave me the green light to make a new tea friend. After drinking his laoshu teas, I got a third positive signal when I asked if he made any cakes with higher quality material. He said, “Yes, but it is expensive and all gone.” This is a good sign for a few reasons. First, actual gushu [ancient arbor, very old tree] tea is not cheap. Second, if he sold out, that means the production was – as it should be – small. Third, there is not a lot of money in the Sorry, We are sold out! game. But before I get ahead of myself, the main factors were;  his tea was good and priced well. So, we hung out and drank tea together, talking about the wonderful mysteries of puer and whatever else came up.

Ruiyuan Puerh
Gushu wrapper

Fast forward to Hobbes review, I began thinking about the gushu tea that he made from Nannuo. I knew that Mr.Ma had sold out of it before we had even met late last summer, but I thought maybe I could rescue a sample. I called him up and found he was already in Yunnan, running around Mengsong. He said to track down his wife in Beijing and see what she had left. Lucky for me the mission was a success. I was given the wrapper of the last cake with about 30 grams of the enchanting cake below.

Nannuo Mountain Puer
The dry remains of a once mighty gushu cake

The Ruiyuan Nannuo Gushu starts off with grape sweetness in the gaiwan and immediately reveals its strength. It is lively and dries my mouth out with a pleasant sewei [astringency] that activates my salivary glands.

Nannuo Mountain Puerh
The lightly colored soup, complete with a cup & an image of a tiny man beneath a tree

After the third cup I take a brief rest, and a low undulating sweetness comes up from the back of my throat through to the top of my tongue.  Through to the back on my throat and the back of the roof of my mouth, a coating lingers. No wonder he doesn’t have any of this left.

There is warming bitterness that lingers like a blanket. Looming in my mouth and throat. In the fourth steep I start drifting off with a hazy feeling. There is plenty of Qi [voodoo energy or religious enlightenment or something] in this cake. Maybe even too much, as I felt a light headed and needed a sit before continuing.

Nannuo Shan Puer
The gold soup in the gongbei

As I began gliding around the room and digging further and further into the session, I decided to spin the wheel with a long oversteep, somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 minutes. I find that a lot of teas made with lesser material break under this pressure and start throwing off all kinds of offensive flavors or unpleasant feelings. This tea handled it quite well. It had an even throatier kuwei [pleasant bitterness] and nothing that made me regret the long steep. Enough of this for today, I think I should have invited a friend to share this session with me.

Note to self: Tell Mr.Ma to write my name on some of his gushu cakes for next year.

Spent leaves
Spent leaves
Tea Packaging Chinese Tea Market

Can anyone identify this Chinese tea packaging?

Deciphering Chinese Tea Packaging

Any frequenter of Western tea forums will come across more than their fair share of threads with titles like “Can somebody tell me what this is?” or “My Chinese co-worker brought this back from China, what is it?” and my personal favorite “My friend went to China and brought back this tea, it is really rare and expensive!” These posts are all well meaning. People interested in learning about tea packaging and understanding their newly found gifts or purchases. However, there is a problem with these lines of questioning. Most people ask these questions under the assumption that the packaging has a direct relationship with the contents of the package. Unfortunately, this assumption is often false.

This assumption typically comes from people in countries where packaging and truth in advertising are well regulated. If I purchase a package labeled as Organic California almonds in the USA, in all likelihood, that is what I will be getting. The company who packages the almonds could be held legally accountable for misrepresenting the product and the penalties are usually enough of a deterrent to keep companies honest. (although that is assuredly not always the case) In China and specifically in the tea markets, this assumption no longer holds true. A wholesale market might work through a ton of tea every day, carted in in large cardboard boxes or plastic bags that are quickly chopped up into smaller quantities and whisked off to tea sellers and tea drinkers around the country. Once the tea makes it to its final destination there is very little, if any, accountability or oversight. Tracing the exact origin of a tea is often a daunting task, even for tea sellers.

So, where does the disconnect begin? First, as mentioned above, only a wholesale distributor will have an accurate idea about their tea source. And, truth be told, in some cases even their conception of where a tea originated could be incorrect. An example that occurs in the world of puer, perhaps a tea dealer purchases directly from a farmer, but they do not know the farmer very well. The 10 kg bag of material that they purchased was sold as X, but is actually a mix of X and Y, because the farmer cut their original material with something else to increase their profit. In this case, even the original seller may unwittingly have some misinformation about the source of their tea – and this is before the tea even makes it to the factory for pressing.

tea packaging
A sea of tea packets

Second, packaging is often generic. Any wholesale tea market, or even small tea shop, with have a plethora of different bags and boxes with generic phrases like “Tie Guan Yin Tea King” or “Organic Top Quality Jin Jun Mei”. These bags and boxes can be filled with anything, and sealed on site. A bag with the label “Long Jing Green Tea” could just as easily be filled with high quality green tea as it could with a very low quality green tea.The packaging is no more an indicator of the bags’ contents than a sack with a dollar sign is an indicator of how much money a cartoon bank thief has stolen. Maybe he took $100 ? Or maybe $100,000? Maybe the tea you were gifted is high quality rock tea or maybe it is cat crap. At best, the bag can offer the viewer a broad category and nothing more. (and in some circumstances, even that will not be correct)

Why would tea vendors and customers want inaccurate packaging?

First, tea is often given as a gift. The receiver of the gift will not know much about tea 99% of the time. Regardless of country, the majority of the general population would be at a loss to distinguish between excellent tea, mediocre tea, and bad tea. China is no different. I have personally witnessed people purchase tea on several occasions where the packaging cost outweighs the cost of the tea by a factor of two or even three. That is to say, they bought $2 of crappy tea, to put into a $6 box. The packaging is beautiful, extolling the glorious rarity of the tea in the box. The tea is borderline garbage. The gift giver appears to be giving a very expensive gift – which gives them face [pride,status] via displaying their wealth. The gift receiver is none the wiser. Everybody wins…well, everybody except for me, who receives multiple gifts of completely shit tea from various acquaintances every month. Hopefully none of them read my blog… If you are reading this and gifted me tea, clearly I don’t mean you. Your tea was great! … Moving on.

Second, it presents an opportunity for unscrupulous tea sellers to make an extra dollar. Real Jinjunmei costs in the neighborhood of a thousand United States dollars per kilogram. The processing of this Fujian red tea became famous in recent years, and suddenly (and unsurprisingly) every tea seller in China was stocking authentic Jinjunmei by the 1/2 ton! Was  most of it real? Don’t be daft! It’s mostly other Fujian teas (or even red tea from Anhui or other neighboring regions) bagged into small pouches bearing the familiar name. Suffice it to say that if your uncle went to China and stopped by a tea market to buy you Jinjunmei where a tea seller told him stories of a rare and expensive tea, in all likelihood he was tricked. The label on that Jinjunmei bag in your hands has all the significance of a certified organic sticker slapped onto a bottle of pesticides.

Tea blog
One shelf, in one store. There are a hundred thousand more where this came from

So, does my packaging mean nothing?

Packaging can still be a general guideline. For example, it could give you a broad category of tea. You might now know that you were gifted Puer tea or Tieguanyin, but as for knowing what region the puer is from or what grade of Tieguanyin you have, you are up the river without a paddle.

Take packaging with a grain of salt and don’t judge books by their covers and [insert some other relevant idiom here]. Tea markets are full of “Spring Laobanzhang” and “Yiwu Gushu” labeled puer teas which are barely worth a few dollars and downright torture to drink. Learning to ignore packaging and flowery stories about tea is crucial to understanding tea. In fact, the first step toward tea enlightenment may very well be to discard all prior conceptions about any given tea before the cup hits your lips.

Tea Blog

2007 Wistaria Blue Mark (Menghai)

More Brief Tea Bloggery

Another quick and dirty snapshot of a Wistaria tea – the 2007 Blue Mark.

loose pressed puer tea
A handsome piece of loosely pressed puer tea

Ben Folds once sang that ” fortune depends on the tone of your voice. ” I have no idea how that line relates to this post, other than Mr.Folds joining me on random in my iTunes – it’s been a long time since I have heard from him.

Perhaps it is a sign. I will sing about this Wistaria tea in a tone of praise. The 2007 Wistaria blue mark is loosely pressed. There is something very pleasing about pulling apart the interlocked fingers of  the leaves with only a gentle nudge of the tea needle.

Puer Tea Blog Wistaria Tea
Young, but not too young soup

The soup is a light copper color. The material was labeled as Menghai area, which rings true from the first slurp. This cake has an unmistakeably Menghai nature about it. Tobacco, malt, and a little bit of body. More body than say, a lower quality Menghai production, but less than a higher quality Menghai production. Middle of the road in terms of body – without a lot of fireworks. But overall, a very pleasant session.

2007 Wistaria Blue Mark Menghai Puer Tea
Spent leaves